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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Learning from St Wilfrid

Today in Rome, an Englishman is being proclaimed a saint: John Henry Newman, the famous Cardinal of the nineteenth century who, we must never forget, was initially formed not as a Roman Catholic but as a child of the Church of England. He is the first English person born since the seventeenth century to be canonised. 
But here in Tynedale we celebrate today an English saint of thirteen hundred years ago. We owe a big debt to St Wilfrid. Everyone knows about Hexham Abbey which he founded, and the Saxon crypt and Frith Stool that survive. Fewer people associate him with this church a few miles downstream, yet he founded it too, maybe before Hexham. They are links in a chain of Saxon churches dedicated to St Andrew that marches east along the line of the Roman Wall as far as Newcastle. Wilfrid almost certainly built his crypt at Hexham as a shrine for the relics of St Andrew that he brought back from Rome. He had a particular devotion to Andrew, one that is shared by your incumbent whose first anniversary as Vicar of Corbridge this is. So a lot of themes coalesce happily today as we celebrate this festival. 

It’s lazy to say that the church isn’t a building, it’s people. There is a truth in it of course: the church is a community, “the household of God, built upon the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ himself as the cornerstone”. It’s an organism that grows, says our reading from Ephesians, “into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are built together in the Spirit into a dwelling-place for God”. But if you’d asked Wilfrid why he built these great churches in worked stone, and on such a scale, furnished so lavishly and adorned with treasures, he would have said something like: if this people is to be a casket of holiness, goodness and truth, then everything that makes it visible – its buildings and its ceremonies – should bear witness to all that is to be valued most: the glory and beauty and love of God as we know him in Jesus Christ. A church building is a sacrament of the One who is among us as Immanuel. It should bring us to our knees, make worshippers and disciples out of us. It’s not either-or. People and building belong together in a God-given both-and. This is what we celebrate on our festival of dedication.

But let’s speak about Wilfrid. The are plenty of people who revere the northern saints like Oswald, Aidan, Cuthbert and Hild, but who have little good to say about Wilfrid. Proud, pompous and prelatical would sum up the popular view, more like a Saxon prince than a servant of the humble Man of Nazareth. It’s true that he was not like gentle Aidan as we call him, who had been his teacher on Lindisfarne. Wilfrid – fervent, combative, self-regarding, complex - could never have been accused of the virtue of simplicity. Nevertheless, Bede goes out of his way to mention the obedience, thoughtfulness and humility he learned as a child. He speaks of his devotion and purity meaning, I think, his unwavering commitment to his vocation as a monk, evangelist and bishop. The call to lead boldly burned hot within him. 

But what especially mattered to Bede was Wilfrid’s vision for the English church. Although schooled in the Irish tradition of faith he had learned from Aidan, his travels on the continent, good European that he was, gave him a larger perspective on what we call catholic Christianity. As Bishop of Hexham, he brought back to Tynedale customs he had come to admire in Rome: great churches built of stone, splendid liturgy and ceremonial, fine music, the Rule of St Benedict for his monks, a love of learning embodied in books and manuscripts, devotion to the saints and not least, high ideals for the status and authority of bishops.

It was conflict over the date of Easter that brought about a crisis for the English church. It could not be right for Christendom to be divided on the celebration of the greatest festival of the liturgical year. King Oswiu, a Northumbrian, and his Queen Eanflaed who was from Kent, followed different traditions, so that in some years, one would still be fasting in Lent while the other was feasting in Eastertide. The Synod of Whitby was convened in 664 to resolve these differences, and it was Wilfrid whose advocacy for catholic custom won the day. His argument came down to being obedient to the apostles Peter and Paul and the undivided church they had bequeathed. To Bede, who knew how mathematics and astronomy come into the complex calculations of the date of Easter, bringing the northern church into unity with the rest of Christendom was of profound importance. It still is, whatever those who want to fix the date of Easter may say.

Arguably it was Wilfrid who helped pave the way for what we call Northumbria’s Golden Age. The kingdom now saw itself as connected to European civilization in a new way that brought inspiration and energy to its leadership. It was open to influences from across the continent, not just from Ireland. In art, literature and politics, the flourishing of the kingdom was envied across Europe. Our fine Saxon churches here in the North East, like Corbridge, bear witness to it. Think of the Durham and Lindisfarne Gospels, the Saxon crosses at Bewcastle and Ruthwell, the Franks Casket that may owe its origins directly to Wilfrid, Bede’s biblical, poetic, astronomical and historical writings. Where do I stop?

But it was religion that was the golden thread. In the middle ages, sacred and secular belonged together. Church and world, politics and faith, all of life belonged to God and was subject to his rule. Perhaps we can see the colossal Roman arch under the tower as a symbol of that. Probably it was brought here from the Roman town at Corbridge: why go to the trouble of dressing newly-quarried stone when there was so much of it left behind by the departing legions a couple of centuries before? Here in this church is an emblem of the might and panoply and culture of antiquity, the people who once lived and died along the edge of empire, and of the alien gods they worshipped. Wilfrid’s Christianity was big enough to embrace even these, to ennoble and put to a higher service the relics of the civilization that once held sway in these lands.

For me, this is the significance as the founder we celebrate today. For all that we may not want to endorse every aspect of his way of leading, I think we are bound to find ourselves honouring the breadth of his vision. If he was ever prone to imagine there was nothing he could not do as a bishop, he was right to recognize that there was nothing God did not care about, did not own as his. This is what it means to be catholic. It’s not simply to care about the formal sacramental unity of the church (though that matters, and we should pursue it by all the means we can). It’s to affirm the catholicon, the wholeness of all things, how everything is knit together and gathered up in the Christ who is Lord of all. “All that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom O Lord, and you are exalted as head over all. And now our God, we give thanks and praise your glorious name.” Wilfrid would say a heartfelt amen to that. As we do on this festival day.

St Andrew’s, Corbridge, 13 October 2019
1 Chronicles 29.6-19, Ephesians 2.19-22, John 2.13-22 

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